How many collections are in your family archives? If the answer is “More than one,” you need a family archive collection plan. Don’t make my mistake and add Uncle Sam to your family tree when he belongs in another orchard.
Poor Uncle Sam. I found his picture nestled between my grandparents photo albums and was certain he belonged to Grandma’s branch of the tree. He looked so much like her Nebraska family. But, Dad didn’t recall an Uncle Sam and had no idea how Sam’s photo came to be in the box.
Actually, the black-and-white headshot was propped on a small hand carved chair inside a glass bottle, like a ship in a bottle, but a chair in a bottle. Similar puzzle bottles occasionally come up on auction sites and estate sales. The wooden chair is typically hand carved with a woven seat. Often a photo or other items are enclosed inside the bottle. A carved stopper holds the lid in place. It’s a curious piece of folk art that was popular as early as 1888 through the 1950s, according to CollectorsWeekly and S.D. Jones: Folk Art in Bottles.
Uncle Sam’s puzzle bottle holds his photo with the caption, “Uncle Sam, 1947.” I really wanted him in my family. He was obviously creative, and talented, and probably kind of fun.
But, Dad wouldn’t budge. No Uncle Sam. No way.
Family Archives Happen
Family collections don’t often come to us with pristine provenance from a single owner. More likely, the photos and keepsakes have been collected over many years and from many different people. If we are lucky, there is some sense of order to meaning to the way things are saved.
Within the collection inherited from a single ancestor, one box might hold photos of your grandmother’s maternal family, another box might hold things from her paternal relatives. If those boxes are combined, clues to identification can easily be lost.
And, what happens when another family member “gifts” you with a box or several of family photos and artifacts? Without a plan, those things might be stored wherever there’s room inside an acid-free box in your own family archives. Or, like Uncle Sam’s bottle, the item may be added to a box of family photo albums from an entirely different family.
One Box for Each Collection
In the last twenty years I’ve become the caretaker of several different family collections. I’ve found the best way to maintain order in my family archives is the simplest. Each collection is stored in it’s own box, or boxes, clearly labeled on the outside. Some boxes are small or hold only a few items, but each box never, ever holds multiple collections.
I purchase true archival acid-free bankers boxes to have on-hand just in case an unexpected archive should come my way. And I try to ask questions about odd or random items, like Uncle Sam’s bottle. I label the outside of the box with a Sharpie marker by writing on permanent adhesive labels. If the box is later repurposed, I just add a new label.
Later, when I have time to process the contents, I add a contents list inside or move items to smaller acid-free archival document or photo boxes. My step-by-step archiving process is outlined in my book How to Archive Family Keepsakes.
Fortunately, Uncle Sam wasn’t permanently attached to the wrong tree.
Since my dad wasn’t much help, I changed tactics and asked my stepmother if she knew anything about the man in the bottle?
“Of course!” she said right away. “That’s my Uncle Sam. He used to make those little things and gave that one to me.”
Mystery solved! I may have lost Uncle Sam, but I get to keep the bottle!
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